Sitting in Tel Aviv last Monday in this pleasant (and not yet brutal) heat I was browsing through “Yediot Ahronot” when I came upon an article written about Aya Barazani who now at 29, has been suffering from Anorexia for 13 years. We all read about Israel’s Photoshop law which was enacted in March 2012, stating that a model must have a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 18.5 or above.
I am not here to write about the ongoing debates: will this change the caseload of eating disorder patients in Israel, will this promote a more positive body image, will other countries follow suit, etc. Rather, I am here to write about the voices of those suffering. Aya is pictured in the paper, standing in front of a mirror, staring at her image. She has spoken out before, as her case was overseen by Adi Barkan (one of the collaborators of the PhotoShop Law, with Rachel Adato) and can be seen in many photos that were printed when the law was passed.
I find it disheartening that the photo shown in today’s paper has Aya standing in front of a mirror, looking at her reflection. Stereotype, much? I feel as if every time there is an article on eating disorders the pictures show either a scale, someone’s reflection in a mirror (oftentimes with a larger image staring back), or an incredibly unhealthy person. I am curious as to the thought process behind these photos; it is as if the reporters or editors wish the reader to focus first on the idea of weight and body, planting misconceptions in innocent minds. An eating disorder is not actually about the physicality of the individual. Rather, the eating disorder is a psychological coping mechanism, deep rooted and complex, which manifests itself in an incredibly dangerous manner on the body of the individual suffering. By placing an image which shows either the body, food, or a form of measuring next to an article, readers/viewers often have a negative predisposition. Why? Because of the constant, reinforced stereotypes – when readers see images of those deeply suffering from Anorexia, they tend to feel disgusted, but this disgust does not go hand in hand with sympathy; rather the individual suffering is labeled and branded (sometimes unconsciously) in a negative manner. Perhaps this is because the photo reminds the reader of images of those who suffer from malnourishment as a result of food deprivation (Holocaust sufferers, etc) and they then feel “those people who suffered in the Holocaust had no choice, but a girl with Anorexia has a choice.” What this reader does not understand is that an eating disorder is not a choice. It is akin to a disease or illness – this does not mean that those suffering are “mental” or “crazy”, but that they have experienced something (trauma, stress) which has caused the eating disorder to develop.
We need to stop with the misleading images. Images result in incorrect assumptions. Additionally, we are working to promote positive body image – one of the main purposes of the PhotoShop law – to show the layperson that “thin” is not the end-all-be-all. Why then would articles show “too-thin” individuals suffering from Anorexia? The practical answer is to show readers the seriousness of this illness and what it can do. But if they want to shock readers, they must also explain the reality of eating disorders.
The images glamorize eating disorders, but are also incredibly negative for those in the photos as well as others suffering. The photos of Aya most likely hinder her recovery as they allow her to bask in the eating disorder. I do not feel that people still in the early stages of an eating disorder should be allowed to be made so public, as their identity then becomes the eating disorder and they may be fearful of ever getting better. As you can see, there are multiple issues that result in the posting of these images.
But I digress. This post is also about something else completely: the voices and hearts of those who put themselves out there. As one of these voices, I know the risk of exposing what I went through. There are those who will always hear about my eating disorder and rather than learn something, choose to remain block-headed and believe that my Anorexia (the thing that almost killed me, that robbed me of who I was for a while) was minor or that I did it for attention. There are also those who think that I must be incredibly unstable to have suffered from such a disorder and that I must just want to be skinny and that that’s what it was all about. I want to let you in on a little secret …an eating disorder is hell. It brings with it pain and suffering – individuals must learn to stop hating themselves as well as to eat again – a fundamental part of human existence that during an eating disorder becomes foreign and almost unnatural. I speak about what I went through to show others that it is not shameful; it is instead a scary reality. I speak up because I want to help those suffering as well as educate the rest of the world. I am one of the voices of an eating disorder and I encourage you to learn from voices other than my own, and to spread our words. I – as someone who used to despise not only the body I saw in the mirror, but the person that body belonged to – am proud of what I’m doing and proud of those who speak up. I believe that perhaps there is a right time to tell one’s story (when it will not hinder recovery) but this length of time is different for each person. Our voices seem to be few and yet they carry such depth. We, as a people, need to work together show others that their voices will be listened to and appreciated, and not judged or ridiculed.
In a world where eating disorders are on the rise – this country alone has an unbelievable, tragic number of cases that arise each year – and continue to be associated with a tremendous amount of misconceptions, what can you do to spread the truth and help the voices be heard?